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“The Examined Life”

Lying in the kitchen covered in blankets, feeling coldy and achy – though perhaps it’s just from an energetic zumba class and then a long walk with my grandson – but in any case, I’m only up for reading. The book is “The Examined Life: How we lose and find ourselves,” by psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz. Extremely powerful and highly recommended. It’s a casebook book – a series of very short chapters about cases the doctor has encountered, troubled people and what changed for them during analysis. So moving that at the end of one story, I burst into tears and had to stop reading.

He described a very difficult case, a 9-year old boy who was profoundly disturbed and angry, kept spitting at the doctor during sessions. Finally the doctor had to seek help from another doctor to figure out what was not working. The expert in child behaviour suggested that the little boy needed to provoke anger in order not to allow in sadness. That if the doctor was angry, it meant that he believed the boy could behave differently and change, rather than admitting, with sadness, that the boy’s brain does not work like other brains, for them both to feel that sadness.

The boy finally admits to the doctor that he feels he is broken, and he stops spitting. He ends up living in the country with one of his sisters and working in a mailroom. The doctor writes:

Several times a year, usually when his psychiatrist is away, he rings me. He begins by asking me if I remember when his psychoanalysis began. I say yes. And then he tells me the exact time, the day of the week and the date of our first session. Then he asks me if I remember when his psychoanalysis ended, and I say yes. And then he tells me the exact time, the day of the week and the date of our last session. He’ll tell me that it was a long time ago, “but it was an important time.” Sometimes he tells me about something that has happened to him recently, but more often than not he wants to talk about something that happened to him when he was a boy. And then, just before hanging up, he always asks, “Do you think about me, do you remember what we talked about?” And I always reply, “Yes, I do.”

And I always reply, Yes I do. Those are the words of a good doctor, one who can alleviate suffering as surely as a war medic or an emergency room nurse. I’ve been lucky enough to be blessed with a doctor like that, who thinks about me and remembers what we talk about. A great gift. One of the messages I feel compelled to send into the world is: IT CAN BE FIXED. Your pain can be lessened. When you understand why you feel that way, you feel better.

Sometimes it makes me sad that I can’t fix other people, I can’t “fix” anyone, even, most importantly, my own children. I can just do my best to understand myself and to read really good books and tell you about them.

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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